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Britain's Leaders Name Their Favorite Poems

Posted: 10/03/10 09:00 AM ET

With Britain's National Poetry Day coming up, new Prime Minister David Cameron was asked to offer up his favorite poem. His choice was Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," which famously offered readers a raw glimpse at the horrors of World War I at a time when war was still heavily glorified. Owen was killed in battle in 1918, a year after writing the poem, which follows in its entirety:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

That last Latin phrase translates roughly to 'It is sweet and right to die for one's country.'

The UK's Daily Mail enjoyed pointing out how a poem so critical of war could hardly be Tony Blair's favorite (a message that Cameron, perhaps, wanted to send). Cameron told the Radio Times, "I still remember the first time I read Owen's poems and the incredible power and anger about the First World War. For me, they were literally an eye-opener and I still find them moving when I read them again today."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's favorite poem is reportedly "Eternity," a quick bit of wisdom by the visionary Romantic poet William Blake:

He who binds himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.

How about our own leaders? I couldn't find any record of Barack Obama offering up a favorite poem (someone should pull it out of him for our own National Poetry Month), but he was once seen carrying a collection of Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott's poetry. Here's a sample of Walcott's work that the President might relate to, entitled "Midsummer, Tobago":

Broad sun-stoned beaches.

White heat. A green river.
A bridge, scorched yellow palms

from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.

Days I have held,
days I have lost,

days that outgrow,
like daughters, my harbouring arms.

Vice President Biden, for his part, is known to quote Irish poets, including William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney. He admires a line from Yeats' poem "Easter, 1916": "All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born." No word on whether he's used it in reference to the economy. But let's hope not.